26 June 2009

My shot at Bella Vita

Dear Reader, I feel awkward to say this but my cheese craze continues. In fact, it’s speeding up exponentially, just like a breaks-broken car racing down the hill. If you read my post about my inclination to compare highly aromatic cheeses to different parts of human flesh – and praise both, if at that – you should then know this: I now eat cheese with flowers.

Last Saturday, I brought home a small bunch of mismatched garden roses – a mix of pale pinks and deep-velvety reds -- from the herb man in the green market, put the flowers in a former soup jar (my way of recycling!), positioned this creative installation on my hay-coloured desk and spent the first four days after the purchase looking at the roses fondly, taking an occasional sniff, poking them regularly and, generally, admiring them. But then, by the end of a particularly unproductive day, when all I did was sit at the desk, studying the walls and a number of solid Ikea objects that my room is meticulously furnished with, I found myself staring at the flowers with the eyes of an affectionate omnivore rather than a dreamy admirer. It was about dinnertime, so the idea of incorporating rose petals in a restorative meal slammed my mind awake all right.
An army of Russian grandmothers make jam from rose petals; rose is essential to Moroccan cuisine; all of which is to say that decidedly nothing was wrong about my wish to nibble on the morsels, as I thought. What I did not expect to be doing was relish the fragrant petals with odorous…Gorgonzola Dolce (a younger version of otherwise sharp and assertive Gorgonzola). To the viewer in me, the cheese offered a humble spectacle of sight: ivory colour with pale, almost diaphanous blue veins. It breathed with creaminess and smelt mildly of the moisture of a grotto. Subtly sweet, faintly pink, delicately perfumed rose petals were only too natural for the Gorgonzola Dolce, I told myself. I was right.

The moments when I forget to breathe are rare, and it was one such time. The sensation was simultaneously tongue-tickling and soothing. The alien to each other tastes and fragrances – the one from gentle and perfumed rose, the other from aromatic Gorgonzola Dolce – befriended one another on a piece of baguette with ilusive notes of vanilla and mingled seamlessly to create the flavor so ambrosial that my head started to spin.
The sun was sliding towards the horizon throwing a gauzy veil of golden light over Amsterdam. No longer was the day unproductive. Instead, it became the day of rose petals and Gorgonzola Dolce. It was my shot at bella vita.

My Dear Reader, what follows is not a recipe but only a few insistent suggestions. There won’t be better time for giving in to the floral bonanza like now when the (wild) pesticide-free roses are in abundance in the farmer’s markets, or maybe even in your own garden. I’d recommend roses of light colours -- they are sweeter and more subtle in flavor. As to the cheese, any creamy, soft-ripened variety such as Brie, Camembert, Gorgonzola Dolce (see above), and even young goat cheese will taste sublime in this pairing. And lastly, although it is tempting to toast baguette, cut in thin rounds, before spreading it with the cheese, it is better to restrain doing so, because when toasted, the flavor of the bread’s crust will be too intense to let you appreciate the etherial flavours of the cheese and rose petals together. Anyway, you just try. You should.

16 June 2009

Pressured state of mind

Past days saw me under pressure – I was busy orchestrating a Russian-themed dinner for my friends Cortney and Martijn. She is Australian, he is Dutch, together they are a vibrant married couple who love to spend their weekends lazing in hammocks, tossing around a frisbee and blowcarting -- that is, when the local weather is the bee’s knees, which is not a frequent occasion, but anyway…What I was trying to say is that last time as we met, I was asked to give a floor about traditional Russian dishes; the ambiance was fitting and inspiring, what with the silky scoops of chocolate and hazelnut praline gelatos and strong crowblack espressos we were relishing. Did I ever mention that home-made gelato loosens my tongue so I blurt things out without giving them much thought in the first place? Because this is exactly what happened: three bites into the cool goodness, and I was claiming to be capable of making borscht, an Eastern European soup starring beetroots, tomatoes and cabbage as main ingredients. At first sight, you’d say this is no big deal to cook that. But this is only at first sight, Dear Reader. Borscht as an (almost) Russian national dish is so lionized and high-standardized that the likelihood of my cooking it not exactly the right way was monstrously high.

On a historical note: Borscht, to the astonishment of many, is not Russian born-and-bred (is it appropriate to say so about food?); originally it’s Ukrainian, yet somewhere along the line borsht crossed a few borders, took many nationalities and became an iconic dish almost in every Slavic country. So by my borscht I mean a Russian variety which, besides beetroots, cabbage and tomatoes, also includes potatoes. Although I remember I once ate Ukrainian borsht with potatoes in it too, from which we can only deduce things are seriously complicated. Potatoes or no, tomatoes are indispensable here (fresh, canned or as a paste), otherwise you can’t call it borscht, but only a beetroot soup. In addition to all that, I learnt that borsht as a topic for conversation is explosive enough to undermine long-lasting marriages and to cause heated family disputes. When I called my mother to ask for the borscht ABC’s, my father chipped in with a stingy remark:

‘Anya, don’t listen to your mother – she can’t cook it properly’.

‘You are an ungrateful pig’, my mother, a woman of verbal dexterity, fired back.

Did I need to hear that? No.

To revert to the present day, I found myself in a situation that can only be described as tricky. And to be honest, that would be a mild description.

It is not a self-flattering confession, Dear Reader, but I am willing to go that far as to say that when I am expected to deliver something palatable and delicious, I usually fail. Fail hard, miserably and irreversibly, that is. Hence this pressure lately. Luckily for me, not necessarily for them, though, but neither Cortney nor Martijn had tasted any Russian dish before. Although the expectations were high, none of them would know if the final product was bastardized, or botched. I made the call that I would do my skillfullest in the kitchen, and come what may.

I’m not sure if I told you but not always do I show grace under pressure. In other words, I don’t seem focused enough to watch my mouth when my mind is preoccupied with things as important as a list of ingredients for borscht. Take this as an instance: I needed chicken bones to make my own chicken stock for the soup – traditionally it is the beef stock that’s used in this dish, but I am not yet well-versed to scout for a marrow bone in the Dutch butcher’s; they don’t happen to have any when I am there and canned stock as a possible substitution is a slash at tradition -- so I headed off to the meat man and told him I need kitchen bones. The butcher did not seem to get it. I kept expressing my wish for kitchen bones.

At first the elderly man smiled, then his brows furrowed, finally he gave me a startled look, his mouth half-open and eyes wide as saucepans. It took me a while to figure out what caused the man such a stir. I apologized for the slips of my tongue, paraphrased ‘kitchen’ into ‘chicken’, and still did not get any – apparently chicken bones were a rare commodity over the weekend. I gasped with horror and felt my heart was in my mouth. This had to stop – I mean my pressured state of mind. I bought for myself a bottle of red.

Dear Reader, this is stunning how simple things turn out to be after a mere glass of libation. I felt there was nothing I could not do in my kitchenette. Everything seemed to be a breeze, even the fact that I had to sink low as to ask my guests to bring along their plates and cutlery for dinner did not rob me of my dignity. How would you do that without a boozy fillip, I wonder?

Past Monday was the Big Tasting Day. Cortney and Martijn arrived loaded with the requisite tableware, and a few bottles of wine for good measure -- monday nights are meant for tipsy-ness.

But I digress, I digress...

I gently warmed up the borscht, toasted the bread, clinked some more pots and pans in the kitchenette, and finally introduced my guests to the anticipated dish served in mismatched soup bowls.

‘It smells gorgeous’, was the first culinary compliment of the evening.

The borscht was delicious and opulent, a smidge sweet and earthy from the beetroot and somewhat nutty from the relaxed, cooked cabbage; savoury and a touch acidic from the tomato paste and vinegar; fragrant from the spices and herbs; with a zip from the spunky aromatic garlic; packed with potato chunks and cabbage ribbons; rusty red in colour. I feel ashamed to have impugned my own ability to not bastardize it, because I absolutely did not. And this is even after I ended up using vegetable stock as the base for the soup. I can only imagine how unbelievably good it will taste with something reminiscent of meat in it.

That said, I am going to call my parents now to see if things are all right.

Borscht (Russian Cabbage and Beet Soup, one of the many varieties)
Yield: 4-6 servings

Borscht is always better as it sits a while, say overnight, so if you can, make it in advance.
1 large beetroot, peeled and coarsely grated
1 medium carrot, peeled and coarsely grated
1 medium yellow onion, roughly chopped
1 Tbsp red wine vinegar
2 Tbsp tomato paste, divided use
4 Tbsp olive oil, divided use
2/4 cups water, divided use
1/2 head small green cabbage, finely shredded
2 large waxy potatoes, peeled and cut into 3-cm (1-inch) cubes
2 L (8 cups) beef (chicken or vegetable) stock
2 medium cloves of garlic, pressed
Salt and freshly ground black pepper, to taste
1 cup finely chopped fresh dill (or flat-leaf parsley)
Sour cream, to serve (optional)

The order in which the vegetables parade in a simmering stock is crucial, for each vegetable has their own cooking time. But first, sauté the beetroot – in a large skillet and over medium heat -- in 2 Tbsp olive oil along with the red wine vinegar and 1 Tbsp tomato paste, until soft (3-5 mins). Add ¼ cup water, scale the heat down to medium-low and keep cooking until the water is evaporated, another 3-4 mins. Set aside.

In the same skillet and over medium heat, sweat the onion, carrot and the other tablespoon of the tomato paste in the rest of the olive oil (2 Tbsp). When the vegetables are soft, add another ¼ cup water, lower the heat a little, and, again, cook until the water is evaporated. Set aside.

In a large saucepan, bring the stock to a gentle simmer. Add the bouquet garni (if using), bay leaves and whole onion to invigorate the stock with more aromatics. Fold in the potatoes and cabbage and simmer, covered, for 20-25 mins. Add the beetroot and the carrot mixtures and continue to simmer, also covered, for another 20-25 mins. A few minutes before the end of cooking time, add the garlic. Turn the heat off and throw in the dill. Discard the whole onion, bouquet garni (if using), and bay leaves. Season to taste.

Serve warm with a dollop of sour cream (optional) and more dill for garnish.

7 June 2009

I don't have a problem

Dear Reader, before we go any further -- so far, in fact, that you may be tempted to advise I consult a psychiatrist -- let me just say that what follows is not an indication of any sort of mental disorder on my part. What you’ll be reading about in a moment is simply a small collection of my food-related life observations that were hoarded by my stealthy mind at one time or another. It has come time I thread those with words and make them readable. Somewhat.
Besides, blowing a raspberry at the author is prohibited.

Now, down to business.

Many years ago I had a small talk which, were I more angelic, I would forget. (But that did not happen, as you may guess.) I was twenty at the time, doing a BA in linguistics in my hometown university in Russia. The summer exams were dealt with, so I spent lots of time listening to my female friends’ love stories and, if asked, dispensing free and objective love advice (I myself did not have much experience in the field, but that did not hinder my enthusiasm to consult on the matter). One sweltering mid-June afternoon found me slurpily consuming a waffle scone of melting chocolate ice-cream on a long walk with one of my then classmates, a girl of my age but of a much greater love-life experience. It may have been the heat that addled her sense of self-censorship, I can’t say now, but, as we strolled along a narrow, curvy street fringed with chestnut trees on either side, the sun shining through their leaves relentlessly, she thoroughly showered me with the nuances of her eventful sexual life. I’ll tell you what, she did not spare me the gory details.

‘He [the girl’s then boyfriend] told me dreamily that my navel smells like cheese’, she revealed one such snippet. A minute ago a thought of licking my ice-cream bode well but now I could not even think of finishing my treat, dammit.

I opined that such comparison insulted my love for cheese at the time. I recall I even threw in the words like ‘humankind’, ‘humanity’, ‘dignity’, ‘restrain’ and ‘freedom from imposition’, and seasoned our conversation with a slew of exclamatory I-beg-your-pardon’s. I sounded thunderously impressive.
If I say I was going to banish the memory of the occasion from my mind, it would be an inexcusable, consummate lie. Better if I’ll tell you the truth: the memory of it became engravable.

Years passed. With them passed away my pretence of being puritanical. When, the other day, I flipped open my notebook where I document my cheese-tasting (among other foods, of course) experiences and impressions, I noticed with a start that almost every aromatic cheese I described featured ‘smells of the aroused human flesh’ characteristic, along with conventional ‘pungent’, ‘nutty’, ‘creamy’ and the like. Err.

I thought I had a problem, the evidence for which was well-documented and thus irrefutable. I shared my concerns with friends; they thought me fun. Then, I resolved to books, to one book by Isabel Allende, in particular. Aphrodite. In it, the author reflects on her fifty-years’ worth of relationship with food and eroticism (would you listen if I, the girl of a crazed mind, say I whole-heartedly recommend it?). But apart from the hilariously informative and instructive (there are recipes in the book) contents, it was the fore-word that set my mind at peace:

"Her breath is like honey spiced with cloves,
Her mouth delicious as a ripened mango.
To press kisses on her skin is to taste the lotus,
The deep cave of her navel hides a store of spices.
What pleasure lies beyond, the tongue knows,
But cannot speak of it."
(Srngarakarika Kumaradadatta, twelfth century)

See that bit about the navel? Almost like the infamous ‘your navel smells like cheese’, no? Anyway, I reasoned out that if one Srngarakarika Kumaradadatta likened bodily smells to food items as early as in the twelfth century, I, with my cheese-notes, should feel at ease, especially since it is the year 2009 outside. In other words, I concluded I don’t have any problem. And I am inclined to keep thinking so, regardless of the fact that there are three types of cheese -- I’m not giving away the names; don’t want to make you rebel against them -- resting on my desk and oozing their aromas of ‘ the aroused human flesh’. One smells of sweaty arm pits (Dear Reader, please don’t wince, I am talking about sweaty that borders on sweet and grassy, nothing repulsive, really), another of navel, the third of thighs.

Here is something else I wish to relay. Through my own experience I learnt that smelly cheese is a perfect attitude-tester. I observed that a relationship is doomed if, among other things, I avoid the pleasure of eating aromatic aged diary when on a romantic date. Needless to say, things may look promising, I find, when a pungent cheese-crackly bread-wine trio is the first thing I wish when asked out for dinner.

It feels better now to have revealed the truth that impregnated me for months. Nay, for years.

P.S. In case you're wondering, the photo above is supposed to attend to my passionate discussion of cheese today, in the gloaming of now-rainy, now-foggy June 7th of 2009, in Amsterdam.